Poet and Memoirist, Salena Godden, on Women in Print

At the first Something Rhymed Salon, Salena Godden read from an essay that was originally published on For Books’ Sake – a site that champions writing by women. She has kindly given us permission to re-blog it here.

She originally wrote the piece in 2014 to tie in with the Women in Print campaign by the innovative publisher, Unbound, which tried to tackle the wider gender imbalance in the publishing industry.


hero-fbsI feel a little nervous writing about this campaign as I’m only just now in print after over two decades of rejections and near misses. The poetry collection Fishing In The Aftermath poems 1994-2014 came out in July with Burning Eye Books and the childhood memoir Springfield Road was published in October with Unbound.

It wasn’t intentional to publish both books in the same year but that’s the way the cards fell and I followed the bread crumbs up the path to find myself here today.

I began work on Springfield Road in 2006 – but before that I wrote poetry, short stories and songs in my band SaltPeter. Back in the early 1990’s I was idealistic and fearless. I’d been working on a novel and I thought I finally had something worth reading. I boldly booked a meeting with a well-known publisher.

I remember bowling into the glass offices alone, with no manager or agent, just me and my manuscript. I also gave him a beautiful mock-up of the book, complete with images, artwork and layout, which a designer friend had been working on with me. After he’d read it, the publisher was kind about it. Looking back, he was very generous, but then he said something I’ll never forget… he told me it was ‘too brave’ for a first novel.

The publisher closed that meeting by suggesting I read Bridget Jones and try writing chick-lit and then come back to him. That was the summer Bridget Jones’s Diary was buzzing like an incessant vibrating lipstick. I have never attempted to write a chick-lit, but that first rejection and those words ‘too brave’ stayed with me.

Springfield Road was initially sold to a major publishing house. After four years we went our separate ways, and now it seems that bravery was what was required. It was frustrating to watch my story chopped to bits in order to try and make it fit into another commercial genre, the misery memoir.

The bravest thing I could do was to take my book back, re-write and publish it my way and to never, ever give up. I think of 2006-2010 and being signed to a major publisher as my writer’s training ground; I learned how to fake that I had a thick skin, I learned some patience. Most importantly I learned to read my own compass and to be sure to stay true and tell my story my way.

Working with Unbound I have the sense of being in a team whilst also still being independent. Writing is hard work, the crowd funding process was hard work and now spreading the word about both books is hard work too.

But I have my Unbound family and editor Rachael Kerr behind me, I adore our working relationship and friendship. Burning Eye’s Clive Birnie has great passion for publishing, Burning Eye Books is boldly setting out to show us that ‘spoken word’ does work on the page.

Springfield_Road_COVERThey also publish an above average number of women. My golden rule has always been to go where the love is, there is a real love for books here.

When I was a little girl I spent much of my time upside down or spinning in circles. I have always had an awareness that there is more, ok to put it bluntly, I have always had an interest in getting out of my head to get into my head. As a teenager I was drawn to literature of a hedonistic nature.

I devoured books like Tom Wolfe’s The Electric Kool Aid Acid Test and Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S Thompson, the work of William Burroughs, Timothy Leary, the Beats and Jack Kerouac.

I searched high and low for women’s stories, I read Carolyn Cassady’s Off The Road a miserable account of the reality of rent and babies, depression and poverty, whilst her husband Neal Cassady is On The Road with Kerouac enjoying orgies of pot and LSD.

Next I discovered Joyce Johnson’s book Minor Characters about 1950’s New York, she writes about her time with the beats, Allen Ginsberg and William and Joan Burroughs.

Again this is a portrayal of being an observer, of not being of any importance to the party, the movement or the revolution. As for William Burroughs, his wife Joan was shot, it was an accident, a trick that went wrong, but she is now listed as not much more than a footnote in the weird and wonderful Burroughs experiments.

These curious and curiouser worlds of experimentation and hedonism it seems have always been narrated by men and from the male perspective. I want to read about female ejaculation. Ha! Seriously, I want to read books by women about women on the front line and in the trenches.

I want to read books by women about the passion and the sacrifices we make living this writing life, writing this living life. I want to see more places set for women at that great table that is the feast of books.

I believe that if we do not start publishing more women, we only pass on half of our inheritance, half of our heritage, half of the story. If we only hear from the great white shark, we miss all the other diverse voices and fish in the sea.

It is no accident that I mostly read men when I was a teenager, back then it seemed to me that was where the party was. It took me years to stumble upon the great Jean Rhys and her vivid 1930’s boozy Paris.

One of my all-time favourite novels Good Morning, Midnight was hidden from me, overshadowed by the likes of Henry Miller and Louis Ferdinand Celine.

Writing Springfield Road I realise now I was trying to narrate a time and place in childhood, to capture it and hold it up in a jam jar for us to see the wings, as you might a butterfly, and then to set it free and watch it fly. I couldn’t find the book I wanted to read in the library, so I wrote it, to paraphrase Toni Morrison.

I wanted to write a story from how the world looked to me as the half caste kid, the alien with the green eyes in a brown face. Both Fishing In The Aftermath and Springfield Road burn with the frustration of longing to belong, of being invisible, yet pull on strength found in the freedom of being an outsider. I am wary of labels and boxes and lists, I feel they only serve to distract and divide writers.

A writer must only concern herself that what she writes today is better than yesterday, she must compete with the better work of her own making tomorrow. Every morning, man or woman, we surely all begin with the same fight: Writer V’s Empty Page.

Today there are millions of mixed race, cloud bothering, daydreamers, little girls spinning in circles getting dizzy in playgrounds all over Britain – And as I write this I say hail to each and every one of them, may they all be too brave.

If any of you have stories about your struggles to be accepted by the literary establishment, please do share them using the comment facility below.

Something Rhymed Salon Series: A Summary

It’s been a week since the last of our first series of Something Rhymed salons, which looked at ways to increase gender parity in the literary world. So now marks a good time to reflect on the ideas we’ve generated during our panel discussions.

The author and books blogger, Kendra Olson, who attended all three salons, has kindly offered us her summary of the series. Over the coming days, we’ll follow on from this by posting up some of the panellists’ talks and some other responses by audience members. And, finally, we’ll collate all the ideas we’ve come up with for accelerating change.

If you came along, now’s your chance to voice any suggestions that you didn’t get to make on the nights. And, if you weren’t able to make it, do get involved in the conversation by using the comment box below.

A Summary of the Something Rhymed Salon Series by Kendra Olson

Over the last month I’ve been attending a series of literary salons in Central London that examine the problem of gender inequality in the literary world and attempt to come up with practical, positive solutions. The salons were run by the talented and generous Emma Claire Sweeney and Emily Midorikawa of Something Rhymed, a blog celebrating female literary friendship.

Emma and Emily brought together an impressive array of panellists for the salons, including women writers and academics, literary editors, critics, performance poets, reviewers, presenters, and the founder of a literary events company committed to diversity in the arts. Regarding the lack of male panellists (Michael Caines of the Times Literary Supplement was the only man on any of the panels), Emma said that they had tried very hard to get male panellists—they initially sought to have equal gender representation–but did not receive much interest from men. This is not to say that men did not attend the salons, because they did—indeed, it seemed to me that each salon brought more men who were intrigued and motivated by the discussion; one of them was the talented Leslie Tate, who has written up his observations on the first two salons on his blog.

The starting point for the discussions was the VIDA count, which has consistently shown a striking imbalance amongst the rates of publication and reviews of male and female writers at the major literary publications. For those who don’t know, VIDA is an organisation representing women in the literary arts, which seeks to examine, publicise and address gender (and other) imbalances in the literary world.

Salon One: VIDA Count

Michael Caines spoke about unequal representation of female reviewers. Caines speculated that one of the reasons why women are poorly represented is due to editors already having a ready pool of tried and tested male journalists at their disposal. He said that we don’t just need more female fiction reviewers but more female reviewers across all categories–women tend to be given the “lighter” stuff whereas men are given more serious subjects, such as politics.

BBC presenter and writer, Harriett Gilbert spoke of her experience, saying that literary editors at magazines are far more likely to be women—hers are nearly all female. However, they still tend to choose books by male writers. Her theory is that while women are happy to read books by men and immerse themselves in the male experience, the reverse is not true (this is something that several panellists commented upon over the course of the salons). She believes the problem has far deeper roots than the publishing industry, going all the way back to childhood. After all, it’s easier for a girl to be a tomboy than for a boy to be the reverse. She thinks this is why JK Rowling disguised her sex when writing the Harry Potter books, so that boys could safely walk around with her books. Because of this situation, editors need to ferret out the female reviewers, and female writers should be proactive in seeking reviewing roles. However, alternatives to traditional media should also be considered as publishers are now seeking a variety of publicity models for fear that print media is on its way out.

imageMaggie Gee (prolific writer and Vice-President of the Royal Society of Literature) advised young writers to do what they’re interested in and go where they wish—all writers are earning less these days. She recalled Virginia Woolf’s envy of Katherine Mansfield, which Gee put down to there being so few opportunities available for women at the time thus making them direct competitors. Gee encouraged women writers to be supportive of one another. During the discussion she spoke to the value of smaller, independent publishing houses who could take risks with more interesting work.

The ever inspiring performance poet and author, Salena Godden, a friend of Maggie Gee, said she is wary of labels and that a writer must only concern themselves with bettering the work they wrote yesterday. She read from a poignant essay she wrote for the forbookssake website to promote the Women in Print campaign by Unbound. She also encouraged women writers to put themselves out there and enter competitions and submit their work without the constant expectation of being rejected.

“I believe that if we do not start publishing more women, we only pass on half of our inheritance, half of our heritage, half of the story. If we only hear from the great white shark, we miss all the other diverse voices and fish in the sea.” –Salena Godden, ForBooksSake

During the discussion, the Books Editor for Mslexia, Danuta Kean, stated that we live in a society where 40% of the population is comprised of ethnic minorities, however this is not represented in literature and publishing. She said that it was up to publishing representatives to change the situation.

Salon Two:  So-called Women’s Issues

The second salon analysed why books about women and so-called women’s issues are so often devalued by the literary establishment. Why is it that the experiences and perspectives of women are seen as less than that of men? Is this because women have, traditionally, written about the home and family whereas men, as per their historical life roles, have explored, experienced and thus written about the wider world? Why is one experience seen as valid and not the other? Is this the reason for devaluing women’s literature, or are there other issues at play?

The Independent Arts Correspondant Arifa Akbar.

The journalist and literary critic, Arifa Akbar (formerly of The Independent) said that while the idea of women’s fiction is a helpful category, it is also a trap. It means you can be pushed to the side-lines more easily. Margaret Atwood suddenly becomes women’s fiction. When women read men’s writing we universalise it, but the reverse doesn’t happen. Conversely, the domestic novel is only domestic when a woman writes it, not when it’s by Philip Roth or Karl Ove Knausgård. She said that newspaper and magazine editors need to be aware of this and give equal space to women writers—she was unsure if these editors were indeed conscious of not doing so—and that women writers have a duty to make them mindful of this.

Photo - Karen Maitland (1)Bestselling historical fiction author, Karen Maitland, attended an all-girls school yet the only female novelist they read was Jane Austen, and she wrote about husband-hunting! Karen said that she became interested in historical fiction because of the beguinages (the medieval cities of women). She said that at historical fiction conferences, male authors are often given more credit than female authors when it comes to what are seen as male fields (weaponry etc). She was unsure if it worked the other way around. She also related an experience she’d had in a bookstore recently where the (male) bookstore owner had actually separated all the books by the gender of the writer (even those writers who used gender neutral pseudonyms) in order to ensure (one would presume) that his male customers did not “accidentally” buy a book written by a woman! Karen wondered if the advent of ebooks might actually change men’s buying habits as the book cover isn’t visible.

imageBooker Prize shortlisted novelist, Michèle Roberts, reminded us that women invented the novel. But most of our institutions – education, the law, the media etc. – have been dominated by men. She thought that the younger generation of men was changing, but that these changes need to be carried out in a wider cultural arena for there to be changes in the literary world.  She said that having a women’s writing group is one of the things which has kept her going as it offers close critical reading and support.

Sarah LeFanuSarah LeFanu, former senior editor at The Women’s Press and one of the three members of Michèle’s writing group, said the issue of gender disparity in publishing has been depoliticised. Nowadays if you complain about it you’re seen as whinging. But the issue remains as political as it ever was. As an example of this she cited last year’s Penguin anthology of short stories, which featured 18 women writers and 30 men! She was concerned that women don’t take up all the space that should be available to them—particularly in this day and age when publishers are so risk averse. She said good writing does not have a gender bias. She also encouraged participants to write about these issues and to talk about why the books they enjoy aren’t being read and reviewed more widely.

Salon Three: Genuine Change

The final salon aimed to come up with solutions, not only in regards to gender disparity but also in regards to ethnicity, class, ability and sexuality. As one speaker put it, our literature should represent our society as a whole, and all the diversity within it.

Varaidzo (1)Varaidzo, arts and culture editor at gal-dem (an online magazine produced by women of colour), said she’s been quite critical about the lack of scope in the British publishing industry. But, in some ways, her own journey has been relatively easy. She attributed this to growing up during the time of the internet and being able to navigate that space and talk to the people she wanted to fairly easily. Regarding the topic of education and children’s books, she noted that very few children’s authors manage to transcend gender—the boys go out and do things while the girls are introspective.

Jill Dawson-2 copyOrange Prize shortlisted novelist, Jill Dawson, who has guest blogged on SomethingRhymed, said the issue is as much about sexuality, class etc. as it is about gender. She said that working class women need more literary role models (currently the women represented in mainstream publishing are mostly from the Oxbridge educated class). As a young woman, she read a lot of African-American women as their writing spoke to her in a way that, for example, Martin Amis’s writing did not. What interested her was that they had a unique vernacular and voice. They too were struggling (Maya Angelou for example), and their words continued to influence Jill when she became a young, single mother. She encouraged people to think about who and what they’re reading, as changing our reading habits and reading more widely is one way of changing the literary landscape.

BWphotoLDFormer Booker Prize judge and Costa Award shortlisted novelist, Louise Doughty, who has also guest blogged on Something Rhymed, spoke to the benefits of the internet age. Since publications can be crowdfunded and there is online publishing, websites etc. For example, VIDA came out of the work of one person. The opportunities for writers now are small but multiple, and while not all ventures will be successful, some will be. While publishers claim to be desperate for new voices, at the same time their (conservative minded) sales and marketing teams are at their backs. These people can only go on what is already selling and are therefore always chasing last year’s successes and unwilling to take risks on new voices.

© Linda BrownleeMelanie Abrahams, the founder of Renaissance One, a literary events company committed to diversity in the arts, said that while there may be a lot of noise made about a title online, that doesn’t necessarily equate to a lot of sales. Traditional publishing has changed very little over the years and the internet doesn’t always affect that. She claimed to know a lot of writers who are successful and don’t use social media at all.

Kendra Olson

During the discussion, an audience member who is a professor at both Goldsmiths and New York University spoke about the fact that she was able to choose her own readings for her students at NYU, but at Goldsmiths she had to teach a pre-devised syllabus. The Art of the Novel course, for instance, included only one or two female authors.

The issue of prizes came up a few times during the salons. In the first salon, Michael Caines wondered if the judging committees of literary awards should be assessed for gender parity. This was an issue which Maggie Gee and Michèle Roberts spoke of as well, recounting how they’d had to argue to get female novelists shortlisted when judging major literary awards.

While I’m still relatively new to the literary scene, I found the salons enlightening, thoughtful and very accessible–a delightful surprise as they could easily have turned out to be somewhat cliquish and depressing. In fact, the organisers did such a wonderful job of creating a welcoming, friendly and supportive atmosphere that I stayed until the end—and am very glad I did as I had lots of lovely conversations afterwards.

Reflecting on my own experience, I have to admit that I’ve perhaps read more men than women in the past, but in the last few years this has changed dramatically. These days nearly all of the books I read are by women—not because I’ve made a conscious decision to read more women writers, but simply because I’m lucky enough to benefit from many female literary friendships and I’m interested in getting to know the work of these authors and the work of the writers they enjoy. This is not to say that I’ve stopped enjoying the work of male writers—not at all—but perhaps the circles I move in as an author with a small, independent publisher means that I’m more likely to discover the work of female authors.

What do you think? Are you a woman writer, or do you work in publishing? If so, what has your experience been? Regardless, do you have an idea for accelerating change? Please do leave a comment below.

Our friends at Naked Wines, who kindly provided the wines for our salon series, are offering a special discount even for those of you who couldn't come along in person.
Our friends at Naked Wines, who kindly provided the wines for our salon series, are offering a special discount even for those of you who couldn’t come along in person.

Maggie Gee and Salena Godden: the Innocence Under the Armour

A shared sense of a female literary tradition fired the epistolary alliance between this month’s profiled writers: the reserved George Eliot and the ebullient Harriet Beecher Stowe. And so we asked authors Maggie Gee and Salena Godden to tell us about their similarities and differences, and the role in their friendship of the written word.

Creative Commons License
The Road Across the Wolds 1997, oil on canvas 48 x 60″ by David Hockney Creative Commons License

Maggie Gee

Maggie: When I first met Salena I found her lively and funny but also quite dauntingly and dazzlingly young – she’s a quarter of a century younger than me. When I heard her perform for the first time, reading a piece of short prose that was as much poetry as story, I really sat up. Wow – she could write – my memory of that piece is of a wide golden field: a sort of dizzy sweep of perspective; and realizing that she was unafraid to be lyrical about the world – a risk most writers won’t take in a culture where irony is king.

I think we share that innocent eye. I do satire but the presiding vision I have is love. I think that’s true of Salena too, in among the outrageous humour and belly laughs. And maybe we recognized that innocence in each other, though we each in our different ways have shells that prevent most people from seeing it. I knew Salena would like the radiant David Hockney Yorkshire landscape show at the Royal Academy in 2012: we went together (it was about the 9th time I had seen it actually!).

Salena Godden 3Salena: I’ll never forget that day we met and went to see that Hockney exhibition, in my memory it is a film. We had a sunny afternoon tea and shared ideas and gossip. Afterwards I remember walking all the way home, through Regents Park and up into Kentish Town, utterly inspired by the colours and the art, but mostly the company, the listening and the sharing and the fantastic conversations we had that afternoon.

I think we share a love of language, colour and light as much as we share a capacity to imagine the worst and the darkest of outcomes. I also think both of us have had to work (and still do work) bloody hard and have hardly ever taken no for an answer. I might be the naughty one or more hedonistic of the two of us, but there is nothing wilder than having an idea and digging your heels in, there is nothing braver than keeping on keeping on, especially when the chips are down or the odds are against you. I think we share an old fashioned sense of fair play, a willingness to fight your corner and a mischief – these are some of the things I’d say we share. If we had gone to the same school I would have probably nicked sweets and pens from Woolworths to give to Maggie to woo her to be my friend and tell me all about writing. 

Maggie Gee

Maggie: How are we different? Well, my father stuck around and gave me different problems to Salena, whose father left. I had more formal educational chances, and she has had more crazy fun. She sang, for heaven’s sake, and had two bands (at least), and ran cool things like The Book Club Boutique! What did I get: degrees. Oh, and she still writes, performs and publishes poetry, whereas my early drive to write poems compressed itself into prose. She’s a fine, bitter-sweet poet – I wish I had written her new collection, Fishing in the Aftermath: it’s intimate and wild and tender, but the words are worked and reworked like a Toledo blade.

Salena Godden 3Salena: My first impression of Maggie was of a sensation of being drawn into her fantastic inquisitive mind, what I mean is, she asks the most interesting questions of her surroundings and coerces people into revealing their mysteries. It is important to question and notice the tiny details in things, but these moments seem to spring golden when you are talking with Maggie.

When we first met back in 2002, I felt I was a rough boozy ruffian next to her, I was in awe. I could tell right away that Maggie was quick and smart, she uses language beautifully, there’s a magnetic pull and a magic in Maggie, she’s a bold heart and a true believer.

Maggie Gee

Maggie: I think we really like each other’s work. I read an early draft of Springfield Road, her brilliant memoir, which has just come out this summer. I was so pleased when she asked me to introduce her at the launch.

Salena Godden 3Salena: I took Springfield Road to Maggie feeling that I could trust her with it. My confidence was pretty shaken at the time, but I knew Maggie would ‘get it’ after I finished reading her beautiful and vivid memoir My Animal Life. Memoir is another kind of writing, you have no armour: you just have your truth and your ghosts.

Maggie Gee

Maggie: We both had problems with the same very big, mainstream publisher. Maybe my cynical view of how big publishers operate was helpful (my being lyrical about human life does not preclude being pretty cynical about most commercial publishing): and I could tell her, hand on heart, that I thought Springfield Road was a stunning piece of writing just as it was.

Salena Godden 3Salena: It was Maggie’s letters and words of encouragement that gave me the confidence I needed to persevere. Then I met John Mitchinson and Rachael Kerr who signed me on the Unbound label and together we all successfully crowd funded Springfield Road. My memoir would still be in a box under my bed if it weren’t for Maggie.

Maggie Gee

Maggie: Looking at the other side of the coin, Salena gave me a shot of new creative life by inviting me into a world of young writers and artists that I loved and felt happy in. Also, when I recently got a slightly demented Guardian review, Salena was the first to tweet in support.

Salena Godden 3Salena: As for that review, it missed the point, the romance, beauty and comedy in the book. I loved the concept of Virginia Woolf In Manhattan. I ate it all up, loving every imaginative word and page, it made me laugh and cry out loud. I mean imagine getting drunk with Virginia Woolf, what a wicked and wonderful dream that is…

Maggie Gee

Maggie: At significant moments in life, I have received wonderful long emails from Salena that are full of the texture of her days. They probably took a few seconds to write, read as naturally as breathing and are cousins of her confessional poems. Then I’ll write back in a kind of mirror writing. I notice my emails always reflect the style of the email that comes to me. Yes, Salena’s a very stylish lady, as well as a sweet one.

Salena Godden 3Salena: Maggie’s letters are a light beaming out of my inbox. She is a true comrade. It’s a funny old game writing, as you know, it is a lonely and competitive sport. Maggie has been so generous. I don’t know what I would have done without her this past decade or so. Some people bring out the best in you, they make you want to do good and aim high and dream bigger and Maggie Gee is that person to me.

Maggie Gee’s latest novel, Virginia Woolf In Manhattan, was published by Telegram Books.

Salena Godden’s latest book is a memoir, Springfield Road, published by Unbound. Her monthly event, The Book Club Boutique, will be launching its new residency at Vout-O-Reenee’s with a Burning Eye Books party on November 5th.